by Eoin Lynch, Conservation Assistant
While working on The Clean Sweep book cleaning project, an interesting book I found in the Joly Collection was The speeches of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, edited by Thomas Davis and published in London, 1847. John Philpot Curran (1750-1817) was an Irish MP and barrister who defended several prominent members of the United Irishmen and Catholic Defenders prior to the 1798 rebellion. This book offers a collection of his speeches on various political issues of the day, including his opposition to the 1801 Act of Union with Britain and Ireland, his opposition to the French Revolution, and his speeches made while defending United Irishmen in court.
The reason for my own particular interest in this book is that I wrote a dissertation (MA in Historical Research) on William Drennan, founder of the United Irishmen. Curran defended William Drennan in court. Based on evidence from an informer within the Dublin United Irishmen, Drennan was charged by the Crown authorities with seditious libel in late 1793, on the grounds that he had written an Address to the Volunteers of Ireland in December 1792, calling for the Volunteers to arm themselves to fight for parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation.
Drennan’s trial by grand jury was held on 25 June 1794. The government’s case was based on the testimony of one informer, William Carey, which Curran totally undermined under cross examination. William Drennan’s brother-in-law Sam McTier reported that ‘On his cross-examination by Curran (who displayed abilities greater than I was before witness to), he [Carey] perjured himself three or four times, and to be sure there never was any man made such a devil of as Curran made of Carey’. The Northern Star was equally vocal in its praise for Curran: ‘he made the most ingenious defence the case would admit of, and used his utmost endeavours to excite the passions of the jurors’. The discrediting of their chief witness fatally weakened the case of the government.
The jury was reluctant to acquit the accused party; it required the intervention of a judge to force the jury to ignore the ‘unruly and seditious rabble’ and acquit Drennan on the remaining nine charges. The news of this victory for the United Irishmen’s cause was quickly spread across Ireland, with accounts of the trial printed in the Hibernian Chronicle in Cork, while the Belfast Newsletter and Northern Star newspapers published a full account of the closing argument made by Curran to defend Drennan.
John Philpot Curran was widely respected for his oratory and political activism, as well as his skills as a lawyer. He was famous for his wit, and is attributed (along with Edmund Burke) with having coined the phrase “Evil prospers when good men do nothing”. However his personal life was unsettled; His daughter Gertrude died in 1792; his wife Sarah left him for a clergyman in 1794, and his resulting libel against the man, Rev. Michael Sandys, became a cause célèbre in Dublin society for much of 1795. Furthermore, his daughter Sarah Curran was the famous lover and fiancée of Robert Emmet, who was executed for his doomed rebellion in 1803. John Philpot Curran disapproved of their relationship, to the point that when he discovered Sarah was engaged, he disowned her and then treated her so harshly that she had to take refuge with friends in Cork, where she died in 1808.
I find Curran a fascinating character, and one whose wit and intelligence comes through clearly in the speeches contained in this book. Furthermore, he is an interesting Irish historical figure, whose speeches in this book can offer readers a clear sense of Irish political events during his lifetime.
Bean an Phoist adds: If you’d like to read any of Curran’s speeches for yourself, click into our catalogue and read it online from the Hathi Trust! We link from our catalogue to as much digitised material as we can, so keep an eye out for Hathi Trust, Google Books, or Open Library icons…